ITOL Top 50 Films of the Decade, Entry No.18: Cameraperson

Year: 2016

Runtime: 102 Minutes

Director: Kirsten Johnson

Writer: Doris Baizley (consulting writer), Lisa Freedman (consulting writer)  

Stars: Jacques Derrida, Kirsten Johnson, Roger Phenix

By Bee Garner

You may have not heard of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson but we are more than certain that you have heard of the films she’s shot. Johnson has been the cinematographer for several important documentaries including the likes of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004), Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War” (2012) and Laura Poitras’s “Citizenfour” (2014). In fact, Johnson’s career has spanned over 25 years and her documentary “Camera Person” is made up of ‘memories’ all captured on film. Johnson has been to places that we only hear in fleeting news reports on the morning news, she has seen horrors that we can only imagine, but never does “Cameraperson” ever feel exploitative or invasive. Instead, what we have here is an absorbing initiate potratrit into humanity, and a passion for a career.


This is very much unlike your usual documentary format as what Johnson presents us with is a far more intimate autobiographical  memoir or perhaps it’s best described as a collage rather than a standard, straightforward documentary. The viewer is taken on a journey across the globe, from the United States, to Nigeria, Liberia and Rwanda, Bosnia and Afghanistan: we witness the world through Johnson’s lens and gain an experience like no other. We open with a title card which precedes the opening image that is personally signed by Johnson and requests that the viewer to accept the work as her memoir.

What She Said:

“A thoughtful examination of the role of the documentary-maker.”

Cath Clarke, Time Out

What makes “Cameraperson” so unique is that we are not given a voice-over narration, or any further information about the footage asie from the time and place where it was shot. Instead, we are left to fill in the blanks, and simply observe what is taking place on the screen, to witness the aftermath of war and conflict, to go beyond the headlines and the statistics. Through the series of episodic juxtapositions, Johnson manages to explore the relationships between a camera person and their subjects, as well as the complex blurring of the lines of fact and fiction.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Johnson stated that there was “some part [of me] once bought into the idea that film can create change and yet I’ve been working for 25 years and there is still war, poverty, and human rights abuses.” And we get the impression that Johnson is still fully invested in this need to document, and this need to help in anyway she can. What we see with “Cameraperson” is a Johnson’s passion, perhaps an obsession to film. Johnson also includes footage of her mother who had Alzheimer’s, which shows us just how precious the element of film can be, it has the potential to last longer than our own memories.


What makes Johnson’s story and her documentary so fascinating that it shows us an honest portrayal of the struggles women face across the globe. And, Johnson’s own career struggles makes for a fascinating backstory. According to the 2018 statistics from Women and Hollywood for the 500 top grossing films, “Women only accounted for 6% of cinematographers. On films with at least one female director, women comprised 19% of cinematographers. On films with exclusively male directors, women accounted for 3% of cinematographers.”

What She Said:

“Kirsten Johnson has created a resonant and revealing kaleidoscope of her life behind the camera on films from Bosnian war documentaries to the Edward Snowden film Citizenfour and even a portrait of the philosopher Jacques Derrida.”

Kate Muir, Times (UK)

Twitter: @muirkate

In Johnson’s own words, “Men have been taught to find a way and have been better trained to bluff. Improvisation and bluffing is the nature of camerawork. People are used to men being able to occupy any position they want anywhere in the world. That is the default. What is more rare is a woman getting to occupy any position she wants to.” “Camerperson” is a film that we should all seek out, because the world shouldn’t be only seen through the lens of a male gaze.

The Extra Bits:

Where to watch:

Chili: Rent & Buy

Google Play: Rent & Buy

YouTube: Rent & Play


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